A former high-ranking EPA official refused to answer lawmakers' questions this morning on how he fooled top officials into believing he was a CIA operative, invoking his Fifth Amendment privilege to remain silent.
John Beale faced the House Oversight and Government Committee just days after pleading guilty to stealing more than $1 million in salary, bonuses and travel fraud. His decision to not speak angered lawmakers, with several Republicans pointing out that he had already pleaded guilty -- and thus shouldn't be able to invoke the Fifth Amendment.
But while Beale stayed mum, his friend Robert Brenner -- who recruited Beale to EPA in 1987 and supervised him for more than a decade -- talked.
The former director of policy analysis and review in the Office of Air and Radiation, Brenner described Beale as a "highly respected" employee who earned his reputation through his work on passing the Clean Air Act. Brenner and Beale met in graduate school, kept in touch through the 1980s and even co-owned a vacation home together.
"The question then becomes how could anyone at EPA believe that John was involved in national security work?" Brenner said. "The answer is that if it had been anyone else, it almost certainly would not have been credible. But John had established a track record that made him one of the most highly regarded members of EPA."
Deputy Inspector General Patrick Sullivan backed up that assessment. Beale, he said, had done solid work for the agency over his 20-year career, helping him convince almost every senior official that he worked for the CIA.
But Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) turned the tables on Brenner, revealing that the now-retired official had once accepted an $8,000 discount on a Mercedes-Benz from a lobbyist.
Brenner at first would not talk about the issue, insisting that the Department of Justice had declined to prosecute.
"I came here voluntarily today to discuss the issues with Mr. Beale. ... I'm not prepared to discuss those issues today," Brenner said, before eventually admitting that he had accepted the discount and that it was given by "an individual who did business with EPA."
That individual worked as an adviser to EPA beginning in 1992 and, when Brenner got the deal, was a lobbyist for an automotive company.
Sullivan said his office had collected enough evidence to support prosecution, but the DOJ declined to take it up. Then Brenner retired, he said -- leaving the IG with no power to compel an interview.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) endeavored to connect what he called a "sweetheart deal" to the Office of Air and Radiation's work on automotive fuel economy standards, which was occurring during the same year Brenner got the discount.
"That's what's going on at the EPA, and that's our concern," Jordan said.
Issa also linked Beale's theft with Brenner's alleged ethics violation -- both, he said, point to "what might be a negligent culture at EPA."
Democrats didn't spare Brenner, either.
"I think you are guilty, and I do think you should be held accountable for the fact that you received a gift that exceeded the amount that you are allowed to receive," California Democrat Jackie Speier said.
At one point, Brenner revealed that Beale is now staying in his guest room, prompting incredulity -- and laughter -- from lawmakers.
"This is just an unbelievable story," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), dropping a line of questioning about the home Brenner and Beale once owned together. "I give up."
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the panel, prodded further, pointing out that Beale has just paid more than $800,000 as part of his guilty plea.
"This is the guy that just paid the federal government $850,000 and he doesn't have a place to go?" Cummings said, later adding: "Are you married? Did your wife agree to that?"
Brenner said his wife was on board.
"You have a very understanding wife," Issa chimed in.
'I do not think I have done anything wrong'
But most of the hearing focused on Beale's 20 years of deception at the agency, with Democrats warning against using his theft as evidence of agencywide complicity.
"What we shouldn't be doing is trying to paint with a guilty brush by insulation the guilt of Mr. Beale," said Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.).
Still, both Republicans and Democrats expressed outrage at Beale’s actions -- and the fact that EPA didn’t catch it. Some Democrats also seemed to support new legislation from Issa that would deny pensions to employees convicted of embezzling or stealing taxpayers money. Beale, despite pleading guilty, is due to receive his retirement payouts.
Also of particular concern appeared to be the fact that Beale got two retention bonuses, despite never having any written job offers, according to the IG’s office.
Those bonuses -- worth 25 percent of his annual salary -- continued for years after they were supposed to expire, with no one apparently noticing. When Beale retired, he was making more than $200,000, beyond the legal limit for federal salaries.
"I believe that Mr. Beale never had any other offer. I believe that he lied, like he lied to everyone else. But how do we catch the liars?" said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.). "How many other people do you think are scamming the EPA right now with your lax policies?"
Brenner insisted that the first retention bonus was deserved. He stood by his decision to recommend the salary boost, though he said he could not remember whether he submitted a written job offer or simply called a recruiter.
"I do not think I have done anything wrong with respect to the way Mr. Beale's personnel issues were handled during the time I was his supervisor," Brenner said.
Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe detailed steps the agency has already taken to prevent similar scams. Among them: biweekly reports on every employee who fails to enter his or her time at work, a new requirement that supervisors review every individual time sheet, an audit of all submitted travel receipts before payout, and an automatic "not to exceed date" on every retention bonus.
When pressed on how Perciasepe missed the fact that Beale was still getting a retention bonus in 2009, when it was supposed to expire in 2003, he said he assumed that it had expired.
"There's 17,000 employees," he said. "I'm not looking at their paychecks."
Perciasepe insisted that EPA had policies in place to prevent crimes like Beale's. The problem, he said, appears to be internal controls that ensure employees follow those policies. The agency, he said, will be implementing the recommendations that come out of an audit now in process at the IG's office.
At one point, lawmakers questioned Perciasepe and Sullivan on the agency's travel procedures. Beale was able to expense tens of thousands of dollars in flights and hotels. He took first-class flights -- including one costing $14,000 -- after submitting forms from his chiropractor affirming that he had back problems.
Sullivan said the senior official who approved Beale's reimbursement vouchers never even looked at them. She automatically approved them because of his respected status and her understanding that he worked for the CIA.
"That begs the issue," South Carolina Republican Trey Gowdy said, "of who's supervising the supervisors?"